Penguicon is a combination science fiction and open source computing convention held in the Detroit metro area in late April. I’ve been to every one. But, unless something changes drastically, the one just wrapping up today as I write this will be my last.
I was invited to the first one, in 2003, to give talks on the open source project I managed at the time — but, for me, it quickly became my home in SF fandom as well. I’d never been to an SF con before, even though I’ve been an SF fan since I was a kid. I quickly found myself among my kind of people. I was home.
Penguicon’s Masquerade launched my fame as the Tron Guy, too. That first year, I went to the Masquerade, thought it might be fun to do, and decided to make a costume. Since Penguicon is a combination SF and computing event, TRON seemed a good thing to do a costume from. I did, and the rest is history.
Ever since that time, I’ve considered Penguicon my home con. Never mind that it’s 750 miles from where I live in Fairmont, Minnesota. Never mind that it’s a 14-hour drive for me. Never mind that I can only come to the con itself, and not help organize it. Never mind that there’s an active fan community in the Twin Cities two hours’ drive away. Penguicon is home.
No longer. I don’t feel welcome any more so much as tolerated, and that precisely because I am the Tron Guy. The difference? Penguicon’s gotten political, and my politics are not theirs.
It’s been growing for several years, but really broke out two years ago. I was awakened (I refuse to use the grammatical atrocity “woke”) to the leftward tilt in SF fandom by the Sad Puppies campaign. When I paid attention, I saw that Penguicon was definitely taking the side of the social justice warrior contingent in fandom, from inviting Charlie Jane Anders and her io9 compatriot Analee Newitz as Guests of Honor to panels full of politically correct topics on gender in SF and the like, to putting up posters on “consent culture” in several places around the hotel, to lamenting that they had not been able to designate any of the hotel bathrooms as unisex.
I spoke to the con chair and a couple of members of the Board of Directors, raising my concerns, on Saturday afternoon. I was promised an opportunity to speak with the entire Board. That conversation happened via teleconference that October. The Board and con chairs — three of them, for the one just ended, the one in planning, and the following one — all said they’d try to make sure that their ideals included inclusion of diverse opinions.
It didn’t happen the following year, which was 2016. There were more politically correct panels, more leftist Guests of Honor — four of them: Ann Leckie, Catherynne Valente, Deb Nicholson, and Ann Lemay — and more leftist virtue signaling around how inclusive they were. (Even at one of the liquid nitrogen ice cream sessions!) I felt more and more isolated, more and more unwelcome. I’d been asked to propose GoHs and panel topics. My GoH proposal was not selected, and of my list of panels, only one was accepted.
Still, I’d promised this year’s con chair that she’d get a fair chance to address my concerns, so I came back one more time. Guess what? More hard-left GoHs — the odious Coraline Ada Ehmke, she of the Contributor Covenant that prohibits project members from being politically incorrect any time, anywhere, in any venue, on pain of expulsion (who had to cancel due to an emergency); Sumana Harihareswara, who I found out the hard way was a hard-core feminist as well; and Cory Doctorow, well-known left-wing author — more politically correct panels, 15 of them on such topics as “Queering Your Fiction” and “Let’s Get the Taste of 2016 Out of Our Mouths” and “Exploring Themes in Zen Cho’s Work” (with “Intersectionality, diaspora and immigration, the culture of British education, and queer relationships also appear in Cho’s stories over and over” in the description). When I was asked to submit lists of panel topics, I was instructed not to be controversial, but it seems the Left has no such admonition.
This was further borne out by the very first thing that happened at Opening Ceremonies: right after the con chair took the mic, she introduced one member of the convention committee, who proceeded to name 8 or 9 American Indian tribes that had lived in Southeast Michigan in the past and said that “we are their guests here”. That bit of virtue signaling came straight out of the political correctness playbook.
The con’s expanded harassment policy is also of the same stripe; it basically allows anyone to complain that they are being harassed on the flimsiest of excuses, and the con can then eject the subject of the complaint summarily with no recourse and no refund. This is the kind of policy that has routinely been used against those who are merely politically incorrect at other cons, most notably the Worldcon in Kansas City.
There were exactly two panels on topics that the Left would not approve of, both relating to firearms. In fairness, I will also point out that the con did, for the first time, officially sponsor and pay for the Geeks with Guns event. Still, the overall feel is that of overpowering political correctness.
All of this adds up to one inescapable conclusion, for me: those who oppose the politically correct orthodoxy are not Penguicon’s kind of people. Oh, sure, they’ll happily take our money, but we’re not “one of them”.
I go to cons to escape the culture wars, not to get hit over the head with how much of a nasty, eeeeevil person I am for being a white male. We are all, first and foremost, SF fans and computer geeks. People should leave their politics at the door and celebrate SF and open source computing for their own sakes. For the first decade, at least, Penguicon did. It doesn’t any more.
What would I do if it were mine to fix? How would I make Penguicon great again? I would return the con explicitly to being nonpolitical. Those known as being strongly on one side of the culture wars would not be invited at all, or if they were, would be balanced with someone on the other side. Panels would not be politically controversial, or else there would be opportunities — explicitly solicited as such — to present opposing views. Ideally, the con would leave the culture wars completely outside. Mere disagreement would explicitly be excluded from the harassment policy.
There are many people associated with the con I consider friends, and many casual acquaintances as well. Nobody has given me personally a hard time. The hotel liaison went out of his way to help me deal with fixing a screwup with my reservation (as in not having made one for this year). I think the problem isn’t explicitly deciding to be politically correct so much as it is that the people involved with the con are so steeped in leftist victim culture that they don’t realize how they come across to the rest of us. Still, that doesn’t make the problem any better.
I’ve got better things to do with a kilobuck, three vacation days, and 1600 miles of driving than going to a con where people who think as I do are tolerated, not accepted, much less welcomed. Unless I have good reason to believe that Penguicon is backing out of the culture wars, this will be my last year here. I’ll miss it, true…but I already miss what Penguicon was. If that Penguicon returns, so will I.